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Cleveland Slavs mourn loss of Catholic churches

November 5, 2011 |  6:00 am


This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

A few dozen stalwart Polish Americans gather each Sunday next to a chain-link fence on the east side of Cleveland, holding a vigil at their shuttered St. Casimir Catholic Church and hoping that one day authorities in Rome will reopen the church.

It was ordered closed by Bishop Richard Lennon in 2009, part of a massive urban retrenchment of the Cleveland Diocese, in which more than 50 churches in the region were shuttered. Most of the churches were located in the decaying core of the city.  

The St. Casimir parishioners vow they will not concede defeat, showing up at the church, Polish flags in hand. Sunday will mark the second anniversary of their crusade.

The Hungarians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs and other Slavic groups were among the hardest hit in the closures, losing churches that served waves of immigrants who flooded into Cleveland over the last century and became part of the city's industrial work force.

More than a dozen church congregations have appealed Lennon's decision to authorities in Rome, who have yet to decide whether to uphold it or reopen the churches.

Robert Tayek, spokesman for the diocese, said the protesters are actually a very small group.

"They have their intent and they want to follow it through," Tayek said. "Most of the people have gotten through it.  The healing process is under way and things have settled down."

Tayek said the appeals process is a slow one and that a similar appeal in Boston took about five years to resolve.

John Juhasz spends every Sunday at a vigil outside St. Emeric, once a center of the Hungarian American community in Cleveland.

"There is no healing at all," Juhasz said. "Mr. Tayek is engaging in wishful thinking."

Before it was closed last year, services at St. Emeric were held in Hungarian. The parish had recruited their priest from Hungary. A Hungarian Boy Scout troop and school still operate in buildings separate from the church.

Joe Feckinan, who spends nearly every Sunday at St. Casimir, said Lennon deeply misunderstood the depth of emotions that were involved among Eastern Europeans, whose families fled more than a century of war and upheaval in Europe and looked at their churches as part of their ethnic identity.

"My relatives fought from the sewers of Warsaw," Feckinan said, referring to the uprising against Nazis during World War II. Feckinan's wife, Malgosia, fled Poland with her family during the Cold War.

"I can't let this fight go," Feckinan said. "We are not giving up."

Stanislav Zadnik, whose Slovene parish was shut down, said the diocese has been disrespectful toward parishioners when it closes churches. Several months ago, Zadnik got into a battle of words with Tayek over a World War II memorial plaque that was found among the debris of a demolished church. When Zadnik recovered it, Tayek alleged Zadnik had taken it "under false pretenses."

"Mr. Tayek slandered me," Zadnik said.

When the Cleveland Plain Dealer gave an account of the matter, the diocese said the paper's story was inaccurate and misleading. The author, Michael O'Malley, said the paper had not issued a correction and that it stood by the accuracy of the story.

"Bishop Lennon is ruthless," Zadnik said. "The people are disgusted."

-- Ralph Vartabedian


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Photo: A fence surrounds St. Casimir Catholic Church after it was closed by the Cleveland Diocese two years ago. Credit: Tom Sullens.

[For the Record: 11:41 a.m., Nov. 5: An earlier version of this post gave the photo credit as John Sullens.]